Attracting female PhD applicants

A commenter on this post asks: “What advice would you give to get more women to *apply* to one’s program?” I thought I’d open up a new thread for this, in case our readers – as they so often do – have helpful and thoughtful suggestions.

I take it that the context of this question is one in which there is a shortage of women in philosophy for broad and systematic reasons. There is probably not much (or at least not much that’s sane and legal) that an individual department can do to suddenly attract an applicant pool that’s 65% female – though maybe I’m wrong about that. So I take it that the question is something like this: given that women already apply to philosophy grad programs in limited numbers, how can I make sure that as many of them as possible apply to my program? That is, how do I make my program seem as attractive as possible to potential women applicants?

My two cents – but I’m pretty out of my depth here – is this. Start by focusing on actually being a good place for women. Then make sure that you are open and public about the stuff that you do for women.

I’d be really curious to know whether departments who have been making efforts on both counts recently – Rutgers gives a good example here – have seen these efforts translate into greater numbers/percentages of female applicants.

11 thoughts on “Attracting female PhD applicants

  1. Honestly? Start in first year undergrad and every year subsequent: micro inequities and stereotype threat (not speaking of the underperformance effect here) starts early. As a lecturer, do you promote inclusivity in your discussions, or do you let 3-5 guys dominate each class? Does your gaze disproportionately fall on the guys when you lecture, or is it even around the class?

    Yes, we should do things at the level of grad admissions, but the problems start early in philosophy education. At the level of admissions, it’s often a chicken-and-egg problem: women may be less inclined to apply to a program that is dominated by men (both grad students and faculty). So start by admitting and hiring more women, and that will solve some of the problem: when people can see themselves in a role, they’re more likely to seek out that role. If philosophy looks and sounds like a boys’ club (or a particular department does), women may be less likely to see themselves as a member of the group, and so will go elsewhere.

  2. Rachel is right. Already as undergrads and master students, women systematically get less encouragement (and sometimes active discouragement) to apply to graduate programs. I am at a large philosophy department with an almost exclusively male faculty (over 90% of faculty are male, and about 80% of grad students, teaching assistants etc are). What I’ve noticed is that young men often get encouraged to apply at our grad program, when they are doing the master’s in philosophy program, even if their papers are not particularly brilliant. Such men are often hailed as ‘golden boys’, ‘up and coming’ etc. When their master’s thesis is subpar, their advisor will say they show great promise anyway. By contrast, the young women in the program never get encouragement, are never hailed as the next young Wittgenstein etc, even if they do excellently.

  3. I doubt the average philosopher will go for this advice, but here’s an idea: take one year where you only admit women, or admit 90% women. What seems to happen in lots of programs is that the committee admits an equal number of women and men, but more men than women accept those offers (often because the women admitted get better offers). If you have a pool of admitted students that is all or mostly women, you have a much better chance of having a new class that has a lot of women in it. I suspect that this alone will help in future years because the next year when you admit half women and half men, the women will pick up on high number of women active in the program. Of course, the success of this is contingent on those women not being isolated and marginalized as they might be otherwise, and other changes will be required as well, but I think this would go a long way. Claude Steele has a very nice chapter (8) on cues like these in Whistling Vivaldi (which is available in an e-version for under $9!).

  4. Annaleigh, at least in certain countries, and at least at public universities, intentionally arranging to admit only women or 90% women even for a single year seems likely to run afoul of anti-discrimination laws. However, your idea of this having a follow-on effect in subsequent years strikes me as plausible.

  5. I almost applied for a philosophy/applied ethics program but ended up choosing another field because I couldn’t see the job at the end of a very expensive education. Philosophy is a privileged field to pursue.

    Philosophy departments seem to be getting smaller and smaller, and teachers seem to fight for available philosophy work. If I were able to see post-education career potential, I’d be there in a hot minute.

  6. Michigan last year did end up having only women start the PhD program. (It would have been illegal to have planned this, and in fact we made a lot of offers to men too, but it worked out that way.) And I don’t believe it had much effect on applications.

    Getting more women into the program is a good way to make the program more women-friendly, and I’m really happy that we have such a great first year class. But it’s no magic bullet, at least for *applications*. We’ll see in a few weeks what it does for acceptances.

  7. Before trying to attract more women to your department, by admissions or otherwise make sure you know what you’re trying to sell them on. Know how good your department is for women.

    I’m an ABD woman in an overwhelmingly male program (<20% women). Male members of the faculty in my department have made increasing efforts in the last year or so to make themselves aware of the climate for women. Some of these efforts have been appreciated and helpful. Some are less so. I recognize that even these less helpful efforts are well intentioned.

    The thing that makes the biggest difference between these two categories, the helpful and the less-so, is how much the concerned parties talk to rather than about women. Talk to the women in your program. Talk to the women at all levels. To the women at the grad level, give them the opportunity to discuss their experiences. Mention that there is concern about the climate for women and invite them to talk about their impressions. This can be touchy, so don't insist. Give women a forum to voice their impressions _without_ requiring that they bring solutions ready-made to the table.

    It is remarkably unhelpful for me, as a women in a clear and apparent minority, to be told that women are in a clear minority. Explaining that you're sure I must have a hard time, or feel stereotype threat is both confusing and upsetting if you've never had a conversation with me about my experiences. Telling me about the studies you've read about the numbers of women in the field is made so much more interesting and effective if you then ask what I think.

    "wait!" you may be saying, "By bringing up those studies perhaps the faculty member is inviting you to speak". Well, perhaps. But as a woman who has spent the last several years attempting to avoid discrimination and stereotype threat by avoiding calling attention to my gender, it can be difficult to say, "Oh, women! I'm one of those! let me tell you…" It's much easier to feel invited to share my experiences if someone asks.

    The women already in your department can be the best spokespeople you have. So, if you want to try to encourage more women to join your department, make sure you know what the climate is like. And if you want to know what the climate is for women in your department, ask.

  8. Make sure all the grad students have equal opportunity to thrive philosophically. For instance, give the female grad students in your program at least as much feedback on their work and at least as much help getting a job. I’m guessing some of the success that Rutgers has recently had in attracting excellent applicants is that their female grad students do phenomenally when applying for jobs (the male grad students do extremely well too).

  9. There is some informal evidence that the percentage of women applicants hovers around 25% for Leiter-top programs (at least in the last few years). But studies show that the tipping point for reducing stereotype threat is around 33%, that is, if you look around and 33% of the people in your program are ‘like’ you, you are less likely to feel stereotype threat. Even though women are a small portion of the applicant pool, the women who do apply, at least to Rutgers, are pretty phenomenal, and are regularly among the strongest candidates. So we’re lucky to have an amazing grad community.

    If I had to take a stab at magicalersatz’s question, I’d say that the single most important thing a department can do to increase the number of women applicants to their dept is to make the department a great place for the women who are already there. That includes doing all the things people have been saying in the thread. There is no better advertisement for a department as being a great place for women than a bunch of happy women grads and faculty. Build it, and they will come.

    To increase the number of women applicants more generally, a department might try to encourage 1st and 2d year women undergrads in their philosophical studies. A study done by Molly, a grad student (whose surname I have forgotten – apologies! — but she worked with Carrie Figdor and Valerie Tiberius) suggests that in the US, the pipeline is leakiest between intro courses in philosophy and the philosophy major.

  10. To follow up on #10, that study (done by Molly Paxton, et al.) also suggested that there’s a strong correlation between having women properly represented on the *faculty* and shoring up the pipeline problem at the undergraduate level. If I recall, Paxton, et al. do not establish a causal link there, but one still might think that trying to hire proportionally is something many departments can do.

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